Using Biography and Technology to Teach Global Africa

Skype call with Dr Ali
Screenshot of Skype call with Dr. Omar H. Ali, Dean of the Lloyd International Honors College at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, and Georgian Court students.

For Spring 2019, I’m teaching a broad survey of African history, and I wanted to invite students to think about African diasporas across the world. As we have discussed African societies and African leaders in the increasingly connected world of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, we read Linda Heywood’s study of Queen Njinga (c. 1583 – 1663) alongside another new work by Omar H. Ali on Malik Ambar (c. 1548 – 1626). These two books drew the students into the lives of African leaders who were instrumental in shaping the worlds of the Atlantic and Indian Oceans. Queen Njinga ruled Ndongo-Matamba, in what is now Angola, negotiating with and resisting Portuguese demands as Atlantic slave trading and civil war continued to fuel instability in West Central Africa. Malik Ambar, originally from Ethiopia and once enslaved himself, prevented Mughal dominance in the Deccan while in power. Skilled military leaders, tacticians, and diplomats, Njinga Mbande and Malik Ambar have inspired wide-ranging discussions among my students about gender, race, leadership, movement, and slavery. Likewise, Njinga of Angola: Africa’s Warrior Queen and Malik Ambar: Power and Slavery across the Indian Ocean are solid guides in the undergraduate classroom.

malik ambar portrait
Portrait of an African courtier, possibly Malik Ambar. Early 17th cen. India, Ahmadnagar. Ink, opaque watercolor, gold on paper. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
malik ambar cover
Malik Ambar: Power and Slavery across the Indian Ocean, part of The World in a Life Series with Oxford University Press.

As a special opportunity, my class met via Skype with Omar H. Ali, PhD, Dean and Professor in the Lloyd International Honors College at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Students in an introductory survey read Malik Ambar: Power and Slavery across the Indian Ocean the week before and prepared questions ahead of time, with my guidance. I highly recommend this type of activity wherever possible! Not only did it bring new voices and spaces for discussion, it also brought out a renewed sense of initiative and confidence in the class. Students asked about methodology, sources, motivations, and purposes in the book. How did the author theorize Malik Ambar’s motivations? How does one write the history of a person who left few records behind, compared to some other world leaders? What kinds of legacies did Malik Ambar’s policies leave for future administrations in the Deccan? Dr. Ali’s answers were open and thoughtful, and I believe the students were able to get a better understanding of what it means to be a historian and a scholar. While Skype visits from authors are a rare privilege, they matter in particular for undergraduates at smaller institutions. I am very happy with how the lesson unfolded and with the investment of my students in an excellent conversation.

Jahangir Shooting the Head of Malik Ambar
Jahangir Shooting the Head of Malik Ambar. 19th century copy of work attributed to Abu’l Hasan, c. 1616. Opaque watercolor, ink, gold on paper. Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.

Interdisciplinary Teaching: “Music and Race in Latin America” Seminar Course

This interdisciplinary topics course brought together my training as a historian and my study as a musician. Though I am not an expert in music history, I found using works from this field very effective in engaging students from Latin American Studies, History, and History Education programs. The course explored how people have deployed, defined, or deemphasized race through music in Latin America. Examining processes of migration and exchange, we compared the influences of musics with roots in Africa, the Americas, Asia, and Europe on present and past understandings of race in the region.

The format of the class prioritized a group experience of the music and an analysis of the readings and other primary sources. We started each class by listening to some of the assigned musics, like politically charged calypsos by Sparrow, Indian fiddle music published through the Smithsonian, or popular tracks by Tego Calderón, Ivy Queen, and Calle 13. The books for the course included Bryan McCann’s Hello, Hello Brazil: Popular Music in the Making of Modern Brazil  and Zoila Mendoza’s Creating Our Own: Folklore, Performance, and Identity in Cuzco, Peru, along with titles from Temple’s Studies in Latin American and Caribbean Music, edited by Peter Manuel. Some of the other works I used proved overly theoretical, but most were accessible and pushed our discussion in interesting directions. Short documentaries (around 30 minutes) worked well in the classroom, among them Chutney in Yuh Soca: A Multicultural Mix and Waila! Making the People Happy: Contemporary Dance Music of the Southern Arizona Indian Tribes (available on Kanopy).

The assignments resulted in some very cool projects by undergraduates. They produced reviews of archives and library collections, podcasts, and an online exhibit. The online project was especially useful in promoting students’ analyses of the nonverbal and musical texts. The students posed their own questions for podcasts and web sites: Do distinct genres of “Latino rap” or “Chicano rap” exist, and how have Latinx musicians influenced rap? What are the purposes of obscenity in the baile funk music scene? How are gendered roles and expectations in reggaetón and rap changing? Students used the flexibility in the assignment to make challenging and insightful presentations. I am happy to share some of the work (with permission) on race and ethnicity in rap music, Latina rappers and women in rap, and the politics of Rio de Janeiro’s funk scene. Below you can see screenshots from some of the web pages created for the course.


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Teaching Atlantic Slavery in World History with Digital Student Projects

One of my ongoing teaching and research questions concerns situating the Atlantic and Atlantic slavery in world history. To bring these topics to the attention of undergraduates, I have designed and implemented assignments that allow students to directly address comparative questions related to legal personality, indenture, slave trading, and transculturation. For a final assessment in an undergraduate seminar on comparative slavery, students created individual online exhibits to complete a project involving two case studies. The goals were a) to contextualize digital sources in historical ways b) to distill information for an online reader and c) to integrate and discuss two cases of slavery to form a coherent argument. The sites had to contain a minimum of three pages or sections incorporating images, text, and other media.

The basic requirements for the project included comparative analysis with supporting multimedia items; use of appropriate secondary sources from class or other academic texts; complete captions for all media; and a minimum of 2,000 words in the three combined pages. I graded the project on a rubric for its historiographical engagement, original arguments, comparative analyses, item captions, primary source use, and design.

Africans and Chinese Laborers project 1
Partial screenshot of an opening page from a student project on nineteenth-century Cuba.
Africans and Chinese Laborers project 2
Partial screenshot of a student project using of primary sources to discuss labor in Cuba.

Using a range of scholarly works, including Lisa Yun’s The Coolie Speaks: Chinese Indentured Laborers and African Slaves in Cuba, James Sweet’s Domingos Álvares, African Healing, and the Intellectual History of the Atlantic World, and Kristin Mann’s Slavery and the Birth of an African City: Lagos, 1760-1900, students explored transregional approaches to study slavery. These methods were then intended to help students create accessible projects linking or comparing the experiences of historical subjects in the worlds of Atlantic slavery.